DO YOU SEE ME?
A conversation with human rights lawyer Prasanna Ranganathan.
By Kylie Adair
Prasanna Ranganathan has had the kind of career that anyone who’s considered law school has dreamt about. He’s a human rights lawyer with years of anti-discrimination, disability rights and international judicial reform work under his belt. He’s worked in Canada, Ethiopia, Jamaica and Mexico. He’s spoken to national audiences about the importance of diversity and inclusion. He’s been a part of structural and ground level changes that improve people’s lives around the world.
Most recently, he and a team under Justice Michael Tulloch, submitted the Report of the Independent Street Checks Review, which examined and made recommendations around the practice of random street checks, also known as carding, in Ontario.
According to the report, carding is a police practice in which an officer randomly asks an individual for identification when there is no suspicious activity, the person is not suspected of a crime, and there is no reason to believe the person has any information on any crime. Street checks, meanwhile, refer to identifying information obtained by a police officer outside of a police station that is not part of an investigation. Carding (or random street checks) is a subset of street checks. Proponents of the practice argue that it deters crime and is useful for intelligence gathering, as a way to create databases of information should a crime be committed in a particular neighbourhood. But who gets stopped and why—and whether the random street checks are based on race, socio-economic status or other identifiers—is a major problem. A 2017 regulation brought in by the Ontario Liberals put limitations on the practice, namely that officers were to inform those they stopped that participating in the check was voluntary. After a year in effect, Justice Tulloch was asked to assemble a team, which included Ranganathan, to review the regulation.
They ultimately found that the costs of random street checks or carding —”the negative effects on the physical and mental health of those carded; potential negative impacts on their employment and other opportunities; the loss of public trust and cooperation; and a reduction in the perception of police legitimacy”— outweigh whatever benefits there are. For that reason, Justice Tulloch and his team recommended the government ban carding or random street checks altogether. Ranganathan’s work on the review involved meeting thousands of people, including members of racialized communities who had been carded, to hear their stories and help determine a path forward.
These aspects of his work may seem an unlikely combination, but as my conversation with Ranganathan went on, it became increasingly clear that there’s a common thread tying everything he does tightly together: he’s deeply moved by people’s stories, and on a mission to make everyone he meets feel understood.
I think one of the most powerful things we can do as humans is to bear witness. I think a lot of the time we see social activism or human rights work as advancing an agenda or being at the forefront of a movement for change. And I think that’s very powerful and important work, but I think a lot of meaningful work also lies in bearing witness and listening to people who have endured experiences of trauma or hurt—people who’ve lived these realities, day in and day out, and listening to their truth, their experiences, and internalising that. Not coming in with preconceived notions, not coming in with an idea of where you’re supposed to end up at the end of this meeting or the end of this project or the end of this month. But really just letting yourself be moved by the reality of what you’re experiencing in the moment.
Through the process of the Independent Street Checks Review, you met with different communities and groups of people to hear how they’ve been impacted by carding over the years, and you’ve written that you’re forever changed by this work—tell me about those experiences, and what you’ve learned over the course of the review.
KA Where does your sense of justice come from? Have you always felt compelled to help people and to make things right in the world, the way you do now?PR I think I’ve always been really fascinated and moved by people—people’s stories and their experiences and their joys and their triumphs and their traumas and their challenges. Because it’s not just about fairness and equality. It’s about: what does it mean to be who we are in the world? What are the barriers that are put in front of us that don’t allow us to be the fullness of ourselves? And how can we remove those barriers? For some people, it’s through creating art to show people the full spectrum of who they can be. For other people, it’s through science and medicine and talking about the possibilities of the human body. For me, it was the law. For me, it was: what are the institutions and systems and rights that allow us to survive and live and thrive in the world? That allow us to speak truth to power? That allow us to find our voice and use our voice? That was really what excited me.
KA You wrote a really beautifully articulated post on Facebook a few weeks back about a question that you’re often asked—or that is often implied in conversations about your career—of whether you’ve been given job opportunities solely to fulfill diversity directives. What compelled you to write that post?PR A big thing that I’ve come to discover as a huge passion for me through law is diversity and inclusion—in the legal profession, on screen in film and television—but the one thing I kept coming up against speaking about diversity and inclusion, being at conferences about it, practicing law in these areas, trying to make changes to how people are appointed or hired to roles, was that people were constantly coming up to me in one way or another and saying something like, “Don’t you want to know that you got the job because you were the best person for the job, not because of diversity and inclusion?” And I kept thinking about it, because this is not something someone would say to a cisgender white man.
They would automatically be assumed to be fully competent for the role. They would think they got the role because they were the best candidate for the job. And yet, when it’s someone from an underrepresented community, be it a woman, person of colour, Indigenous person, a person with a disability, a member of the LGBTQIA community, there’s already that implicit question, wondering, “You know, did you get the job because you have all the skills?”
I’d just had enough of it. And for me it was, ultimately: who I am is what I bring. And what that means at its core is: who I am is informed by my education, it’s informed by my professional experience, by the awards I’ve received, the accomplishments I’ve achieved in my career. But it’s informed, also, honestly, by the fact that I wake up as an LGBTQ2 person of colour with a disability. How I experience the world is very different from how someone who is not legally blind will experience the world. What doors are opened for me, what doors are not opened for me, what conversations I’m included in, how I’m perceived in a meeting—all of that rings true. I bring all of that experience with me. I bring the fact that I made it here despite the expectations placed on me by society. I understand the different angles of an issue that maybe someone else may not see and I also acknowledge my privilege. Fundamentally, you can’t divorce me from who I am. And you can’t explain away my presence in certain spaces because of what you think I am. It’s just so much more complicated than that.
KA And that is the point of diversity and inclusion policies, right? To make the experiences and the knowledge base and the ability to empathize richer among a team.PR Exactly. And study upon study has shown that diversity makes a difference and inclusion makes a difference. You get multi-faceted solutions to complex problems, you get different perspectives, you get ideas that are different and complementary and exciting and look at the issue from different angles.This is not just me saying, “You know, like, let’s just test it out and see what it’s like.” No, there’s research and statistics showing that this actually works. There’s an expression I often use: I’m tired of incremental change. I want inclusive action.
KA You also gave a Walrus Talk during the tour to celebrate Canada’s 150th, in which you said you hate the word diversity. Why is that?PR I prefer the term inclusion to the term diversity. Diversity draws a picture of a world that at its baseline consists of white, heterosexual, non-disabled, cis-gender men. The concept of diversity seeks to populate this world with women, visible minorities, LGBTQ2 persons, Indigenous people, and persons with disabilities. Under this paradigm, it is not our world nor are we a part of it. Inclusion, meanwhile, views the world as comprising of the full spectrum of identities and experiences—as including all of us. Starting from a place of inclusion, the focus then becomes on reflecting all of these voices, perspectives, hues, histories, and experiences that make up the world—reflecting them within the halls of power, employment, education, and cultural representation, such as film and television.
KA Tell me a bit about your social media work, and how that is informed by your work in the law.PR Twitter’s great and it’s not great. But something I’ve realized is that it’s great when it’s harnessed for having meaningful conversations with people and engaging with people in a way that’s really accessible. For example, I worked with the Oprah Winfrey Network on various social media campaigns and created a book club on Twitter, and we discussed books that were on Super Soul Sunday and other shows, and we’d tell people, “The third Friday of every month, come to Twitter and we’ll talk about this book, we’ll answer questions, we’ll do giveaways.” And gradually it started taking on a life of its own. Authors would participate and it was a really cool way for people who’d never met one another to just talk about a book they loved. And then we started transitioning it over to movies.
I was also deeply involved in the social media presence for the Independent Street Checks Review along with my colleague Danielle Dowdy, Senior Strategic Initiatives Lead. I was involved in the design and implementation of the social media outreach and I live-tweeted during our public consultation sessions. My other social media work in the film and television space was very useful, because it underscored the importance of using social media to both share information and engage with key stakeholders. In government and public sector environments, social media is often used simply to share links to legislation, longer articles, or websites of interest. But in using my experience with social media in the entertainment and publishing industries, I was able to help the review engage in meaningful dialogue with diverse audiences, prompting engagement and submissions from a range of individuals and organizations.
So it’s really just another extension of telling people’s stories and listening to people’s stories. Why I loved the law is also why I was drawn to this: engagement and art in all of its many forms (i.e. books, film, television) transforms people.
KA I know you have a really special relationship to Oprah—tell me more about that.PR My mom and I watched Oprah almost every day growing up. I remember coming home from school and we’d talk about what was on the show and it was a big thing for us. And one of the main reasons I pursued law is—and Oprah describes it best, she wants every person to walk away from an interview with her saying yes to the following three questions: Do you see me? Do you hear me? Did what I say matter to you? And for me, it was the same thing, in my approach while we were doing the Street Checks Review consultations, when I lived across the world doing human rights work—the idea being, you walk in, you hear people’s stories, and whether or not you agree with them or you’re on the same page, you walk away and they know they’ve said what they came to say and they’ve been heard. And for me that’s the most inspiring thing about Oprah. There’s that expression—you never want to meet your heroes. For me, that was completely false. When I met Oprah, it was like: who you are on television is exactly who you are in real life and it was incredibly inspiring. Supporting her network and getting to know her has really changed my life.
And that’s what I want to be in all facets of my life. I want to be exactly who I am as a lawyer. I want to be exactly who I am doing arts and theatre work, doing social media work. I want to bring every aspect of me to every aspect of my life.
KA Who else inspires you?PR Justice Tulloch, who I worked for on the Street Checks Review, has shown me what it means to use your voice in service, to cut out the noise and make tangible change in the world. He goes in with an open mind, he listens to everyone and what they have to say, and he comes out determined to write a report in a way that’s inclusive of everyone’s experiences. And that was really powerful to me because, yes, I’ve always been a good listener. I’ve wanted to hear what people think. But really feeling it at the cellular level and allowing that to propel you forward—that was how I was changed by this experience.
Ava DuVernay really inspires me. Her work on diversity and inclusion is an industry game-changer in film and television and she really walks the talk. Her commitment to inclusion is rooted in a fundamental understanding of the power we all hold to be the change.
And my parents. They really taught me what it meant to show up and love every day, whether it’s at work or at home or in the community. They showed me that love is not something you hold internally, but love manifests in the way you be and become in the world.
*This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Kylie Adair is the editorial director at kaur. space. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and human rights and a miniature schnauzer named Dot.
To read more stories like this from Kylie and other writers, become a kaur. member.